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Here. Now., Alyssa Mitchel, November 7th, 2021

Guest Post: Mary Jane Agnew

Here. Now. by Alyssa Mitchel. Photo: Kyle Adler

The Embarcadaro on San Francisco’s waterfront is home to many restaurants, shops, and attractions, including the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Humanities. A cement plaza outside the Exploratorium overlooks the water and contains a 25-foot illuminated sculpture of a geometric sphere. This sculpture, called the Buckyball, was what drew Alyssa Mitchel to create her site-specific dance piece “Here. Now.” at the Exploratorium. 

When I arrived at the plaza on November 7th there were many families and tourists, enjoying the sun and seemed oblivious that a performance was about to occur. People started to notice that something was afoot as speakers and microphones were set up and tested. Chairs began to form barriers on three sides of the plaza, and I quickly chose a seat that would put me in the center of the action.

The dancers seemingly appeared out of thin air and walked to their places from behind my seat and began to warm up. As they stilled in their starting positions and the music began, all the energy swirling in the plaza became focused on the dance.

The music used in Here. Now. was staccato and rhythmic at times, and soft and fluid at others. The sounds were layered and complex, but the simplicity of each deep tone resonated in my body. These natural sounds in the music also helped set the piece in its surroundings. The seagulls calling to each other, the honking of traffic, it all blended together. 

The movement itself complemented and contrasted the music throughout the piece. Sometimes matching the sharper notes with spritely, playful energy, and other times creating long drawn out shapes following the deeper tones in the music. Stillness was placed before or after phrases of quicker steps. Long leg extensions and balances followed a duet with a series of lifts. The movement styles ranged from contemporary and partnering to stepping and breaking. No matter the movement quality, there was a rhythm to the piece that made everything flow together and blend one moment into the next.

The choreography also highlighted connection, to each other, to our surroundings, and to ourselves, and this could be felt between the dancers during the performance. The use of breath was emphasized throughout the piece as a way to center oneself, and it was also what the dancers used to match up their movements. As an audience member, I was made conscious of the importance of my own breath as I witnessed the dancers use it to communicate and help themselves through such physical choreography.

When Alyssa Mitchel was creating Here. Now., she was largely inspired by mindfulness meditation and centering oneself with breath. Each section is titled after and focused on some aspect of Buddhist practice and mindfulness exercises; Loving Kindness, Tonglen, Noting, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and Body Scan. As an audience member, I was taken on a journey through each of these themes and was able to think about how I could incorporate these ideas into my own life. As a dancer myself, I am intrigued by the idea of exploring a concept like mindfulness through movement. Embodying such internal and neurological processes and what they feel like in a physical way, can change our relationship with them and see them from a new perspective.

The Buckyball and surrounding plaza was a great place for the dance to exist. The connective, living organism feeling of the piece is mirrored in the sculpture’s architecture. The rootedness and webbing of the Buckyball are reflective of the dancer’s energy, togetherness, and execution of the choreography. Just as the music fit in with the surrounding environment, the dancers did too.

Here. Now. by Alyssa Mitchel. Photo: Kyle Adler

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A Return to (Writing) Dance

My last blog post was 307 days ago.

Since then, I watched some live dance in Oakland from my car, viewed some dance films, and streamed one live dance performance. Writing about these dances was difficult. I have notes, but could not turn them into sentences, thoughts or ideas. It’s not easy to sit in front of my computer screen and watch dance films. I’ve been trying to figure out why. In my last post (307 days ago), I wrote about missing dance “as it passes,” its ephemerality, its liveliness. I also miss running into people at dance performances, talking during intermissions, trying to take notes in the dark, thinking through a dance as I walk home, letting a performance sit with me for a few days. When I saw the program for the ODC Theater Festival, I was glad to see familiar names so I decided to try watching again and see what I could discover.

Catherine Galasso’s film, (Alone Together)2, made with cinematographer Natalia Roberts is an ode to Alone Together, a 2018 as a site- specific work for ODC’s B. Way Theater in 2018. Alone Together placed the audience on the stage and the performers in theater seats to “playfully dissect the relationship between viewer and subject.” I did not see Alone Together so my response to (Alone Together)2 is without reference.

Galasso’s program notes were personal as well as revelatory. Included at the beginning of the film, they served as a kind of a prologue, expressing a resistance to creating (another) dance film, but found a path forward by focusing on the dancers as people to bring viewers closer to why dance and performance matters. Five of the original cast members returned to film individual sequences and interviews that were woven together. Odes are a kind of poem that addresses or responds to a particular situation, experience, or subject. They are expressive, rhythmic, and structured. If (Alone Together)2 is a ode then what is it an ode to? Galasso stated that (Alone Together)2 is an ode to Alone Together and to what we miss about live performance. For me, the film resonated in multiple ways as an ode to:

  • identity
  • movement
  • experience
  • memory
  • perseverance
  • change
  • dance
  • audiences

(Alone Together)2 is not just another dance film. It is a reminder that live dance performance matters. I am keen to see how dance in San Francisco and elsewhere slowly moves back into theaters.

PARAMODERNITIES: A SERIES OF DANCE EXPERIMENTS, NETTA YERUSHALMY ODC THEATER, FEB. 23RD

Installment #3 – A Conversation with Julian Carter, finis.

“Paramodernities #3: Afterlives of Slavery” A Response to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960)
M: For me, Thomas DeFrantz’s performative lecture was the central element in “Paramodernities #3: Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery.” In my research and writing about repetition I’ve thought a lot about Revelations; it is the single most-repeated concert dance, done even more frequently than the Nutcracker. I have studied this piece for years (watching, reading, reflecting). Yet DeFrantz’s commentary allowed me to see its constant repetitions in a different way. For one, he gave me access to what it might feel like to dance Revelations. I am a white female body sitting in an audience but watching this performance I was able – for a moment – to be on the inside, and able to place myself differently in relation to the piece.

The movement vocabulary, performed by 5 dancers, visibly referred to and sometimes copied iconic moments in Ailey’s piece. For DeFrantz, the reason to repeat Revelations is not only that audiences expect it (which they do), but also that it needs to make its claims again and again in a world that continues to perpetuate racism in its social systems and philosophical thinking–and also in its performances. I was struck by DeFrantz’s explicit commentary on the pervasiveness of racism in dance performances, histories, and theories. Repeating Revelations lets African American bodies re-inhabit and reimagine spaces of black power. And Yerushalmy’s white body, performing these movements alongside Black-identified dancers Ayorinde, Engel-Adams, Gambucci, and Leichter, created a moment to consider Ailey’s role and legacy as the bearer of Blackness in modern dance.

How did you respond to “Paramodernities #3”?

J: Honestly I was blown away by it. We’ve been so busy digging into these dances we haven’t stopped to say how powerfully we responded to them–how much we loved this whole evening. Both of us wanted to go back the next night, and both of us are talking about making the pilgrimage to Jacob’s Pillow in August 2018 so we can watch the whole cycle. This is extraordinarily intelligent dance-making, deeply thought through and compellingly performed.

For me, the Ailey segment was the most viscerally powerful of the three dances we saw because its academic and kinetic components were most closely interwoven. Each of the other scholars had something rich to offer–I don’t mean to suggest that their contributions were insubstantial or unimportant. But DeFrantz is a performer as well as a scholar, and he entered his bodymind into the dance with a fullness and passion that made sparks fly.  

One comment he made in passing was that “slavery called for difference, in order to allow for an exploitation of energy as labor.” This resonates for me with your interest in repetition. Because one of the things Revelations does is enshrine Blackness in the white-dominant modern dance canon, it is always a performance of racial difference; and as concert dance, it exists in the transformation of energy into labor. Its celebration of a US Black creative tradition is also the repetition of enslavement’s wounding work. DeFrantz asked at one point whether that repetition is inevitable; I am not sure whether “Paramodernities #3” answers the question, but the question itself would seem to be what Yerushalmy and DeFrantz are driving at in subtitling this Paramodernity “The Afterlives of Slavery.”

M: The audience was asked to sit around the stage; we opted for the floor, others were in chairs and some stayed put. This closing in reflected a kind of intimacy that ran through all three of these Paramodernities. In #1 the audience lights were kept on, in #4 the dancers directly engaged us with questions, in #3 we were invited to frame the dance. Overall, I felt invited into a conversation. I wish the talkback at the end of the show was organized differently so that conversation could continue.

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There is much more to respond to “Paramodernities #3” – DeFrantz’s script; Yerushalmy’s dancing white body; the impact of the men dancers performing gestures from roles composed for women.Two weeks later we are still eager to continue this conversation! Yerushalmy’s work continues to resonate with us both. We haven’t really circled back to how modernity is articulated through these three Paramodernities, nor did we dig into ideas about gender, legacy, and sexuality that came up for both of us. For me this reflects how these dances don’t really seem quite “done.” They are alive–the task of reworking, refashioning, and reimagining is never really over.

Yerushalmy seems to agree–at least, Paramodernities continues at Jacob’s Pillow this August. I would welcome the opportunities to see these three dances again and continue our conversation. Perhaps that is the best way to end our conversation – a yearning for more watching and writing. Thanks for talking with me J!

J: Thank you so much for letting me play in your blogspace, Michelle!

 

October 14th, “The Bridge Project: Ten Artists Respond to Locus”

Produced by Hope Mohr Dance

As I sit to write a response to Mohr’s latest Bridge Project, I can’t help but think back to my experiences with her 2015 Bridge Project: Rewriting Dance. I attended the Jeanine Durning workshop and afterward saw Talk the Walk: Local Artists at the Intersection of Language and Choreographic Thinking. My response was one of felt community: “I felt attended to as an audience member. “The whole” resonated much more than the individual parts.” I had a similar response to Ten Artists Respond to Locus; “the whole” resonated more than the parts.  

Mohr states in her notes that “The purpose of Ten Artists Response to Locus is not to create nostalgia, but rather to create a space for cultural exchange. This evening does not try to force a seamless synthesis among the responses to Locus. Instead, this evening offers a series of conversations about form and cultural transmission. Another layer of transmission happens now – between the artists and you.”

What was transmitted between the artists and me? The 11 pieces (some of them involved multiple artists) on the program seemed to quickly move past. My notes are a blur of words, sketches, and numbers. I wanted the evening to slow down so I could maybe have a conversation with each artist not so much to know the minutiae and nuance of thinking behind each piece, but to have a genuine exchange of perspective and insight. The post-show conversation was too brief, which also seemed to reflect the hurried pacing of the evening. 

That said, I can appreciate how Mohr wanted to cultivate a particular mood in space and with time. She placed  Locus (the evening’s reference point, a solo) second on the program and was danced again by another dancer in the lobby at intermission. The stage was square and the audience sat around it, which created a box-like container clearly reflecting the square in which Locus is usually danced. From this, I could sense that we might be part of the performance.  As the evening unfolded, I could feel the attentive vibrations emanating into the performance space as if collectively we were trying to find Locus references in each of the evening’s performances. There was a level of felt engagement, an effort to facilitate the cultural exchange Mohr was asking for.

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Although the event demands to be read as a whole, two pieces stood out.  The first, quarter by Larry Arrington, was stunning.  Holding space and time, Arrington stood on a rock with one foot with arms pushing upwards, rippling toward the sky. I didn’t want this part of the dance to end.  It clearly reflected how the dance was “informed by the crisis of border/map/territory that is is an ongoing social and economic cataclysm on the surface of this planet.” These words came from the statement Arrington provided as an insert to the program. As I watched, enthralled by Arrington’s focus, I found myself thinking about the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. quarter could be required “reading” for anyone studying this protest. The second piece, per[mute]ing by Peiling Kao was an embodiment of thought and thinking. I’ve been watching Kao dance for years and she always takes command of the choreography and stage with grace and strength. Without clearly referencing Locus (there was no obvious white square for example), her gestures and movement suggested a directional focus of points in space that were connected to each other somehow – a lineage of sorts. A week or so after the performance, Kao posted a blog post on her thinking and practice behind the piece. Looking back, I could sense this in how Kao was able let go of Locus and yet stay in contact with it through her own vocabulary (and history).

To close, I want to say that I appreciate the challenge to write about a whole evening of 10 different artists and their thinking-dancing. I would like to include more discourse from and with the 10 artists. I would like to sit down with Mohr and ask more about Locus and Brown’s legacy and why it seems relevant to us at this particular moment – why might this  matter beyond the world of dance history and legacy?  

August 11th, “Motion Studies

Choreography by Katie Faulkner

It’s been a while.

After some time away, I’m back to regular programming.  I decided to kick off my return by watching Katie Faulkner’s newest piece in collaboration with Cedric Kiefer (of Berlin-based onformative).  Honestly, I’m not sure what to call the piece as the documentation provided by Dolby on the internet and onsite referred to the work by three different names: Kinesthetics, Collide, and Motion Studies.  I’m still not sure what to make of this terministic stickiness. 

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The evening began with a discussion between Faulkner and Kiefer moderated by Julie Phelps of CounterPulse.  I learned that Kiefer generated the visual display that “performed” on the light ribbon screen by analyzing dance archives, collecting data from them, and then visualizing movements from the data.  This same data were used to create the sound score that accompanied the visual.  Faulkner then choreographed a “response” to the visualized data.  Phelps called this “closing the loop“ (dance – data – sound – dance).  Faulkner’s two dancers moved alongside and sometimes beneath the ribbon screen in under 10 minutes.  When asked about the process for creating the work, Faulkner stated that she started with improvised dancing that responded to or was inspired by the dynamics of the visual created by Kiefer.  What struck me the most was how deeply human and humanizing the movement felt.  I’m not sure if this “closed the loop.” But I am sure that Faulkner’s choreography not only brought moving bodies into an otherwise hyper-technologized space but also human experience and perspective.  There was no story or message, but there were two bodies reminding me that dance doesn’t always need a message for it to matter.

May 6th, “Program 8: Onegin”

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by John Cranko

Last One

This was my fourth trip to see the San Francisco Ballet this season and my only full-length ballet.  I could feel the storytelling of the Pushkin narrative poem and found myself connecting with the drama as it unfolded out of the choreography.  I think the last lines of the program notes best capture my experience: “it is a joy to watch.”  Even so, this dance doesn’t inspire me to write.  I could write about the quality of dancing, sets, or costumes.  I could write about the choreography or music.  There just isn’t much say.  But I do think there is something to say about San Francisco Ballet now that the season is over.  That, however, will wait until later.   

 

 

 

April 14th, “Program 6″

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Helgi Tomasson, Alexi Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon

Again

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This is the most I’ve seen of a San Francisco Ballet season since moving here in 2007 – 4 so far and 1 left to go.  Again, a mixed repertory program, and again odd programming.  These three pieces (Prisim, Seven Sonatas, and Rush) were very similar, almost too similar.  The program notes highlighted their differences in choreographic approaches, musical choices, and moods, but these differences didn’t provide enough differentiation between the three dances (for me).  Yes, I had a favorite, but it doesn’t really matter as I am not inspired to write about either of these dances.  Yes, there was good dancing, but there usually is good dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. I don’t mind spending time in the beauty of a dance.  I do mind, however, when that is all there is again, and again.  What is there to write or think about?

After I saw Program 2 in February, (Rubies (Balanchine), Drink to me with Thine Eyes (Morris), and Fearless Creatures (Scarlett), I wrote it was a pleasant surprise, but that I wanted more fearless.  

I am still waiting.